Was the Recently Found Frozen Wolf a Dire Wolf?

Zhùr means wolf in the language of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in people. The frozen specimen was found in their ancestral land in Canada’s Yukon territory so the pup was nicknamed Zhùr. Because of the age of the remains some people have questioned – Was the recently found frozen wolf a dire wolf? Read on to what is known about this little one.

Was the Recently Found 57,000-year-old Frozen Wolf in Canada’s Arctic a Dire Wolf?

No, it wasn’t a dire wolf. The pup, who researchers named Zhùr, was a 7 week old recently weaned wolf pup that had been feeding on fish and aquatic animals. It was related to wolves that have been found in Alaska and Eurasia but not genetically close to modern Yukon Gray Wolves. Dire wolves are thought to not even have been wolves at all and perhaps should be thought of as more like large foxes. They certainly didn’t look like Jon Snow’s Dire Wolf, Ghost.

Where was the 57,000 year old wolf found?

It was 2016 and Neil Loveless was excavating a wall of permafrost with a water cannon, looking for something precious. He didn’t find any riches but he did unearth the most complete and the oldest mummified wolf that was ever discovered. The discovery was made in Canada’s Yukon territory. Luckily for science, he had the presence of mind to place his finding in a freezer until it could be properly examined by experts.

Image from the Government of Yukon
X-Ray Image from Government of Yukon.

The wolf was from an era (the Pleistocene epoch) when American Mastodons roamed Canada. A Mastodon was the predecessor to the Wooly Mammoth and was a little smaller. The two briefly existed at the same time before the Mastadon became extinct. This period of time was from 2.6 million to approximately 11,700 years ago.

While there have been exciting finds in the Siberian Tundra, a find like this in the Yukon territory has never happened before.

57,000 years ago was still in the middle of the ice age, but there were times throughout this epoch in which artic glaciers retreated–this was one of those times. During this warmer period, forests flourished and wolves would have shared the landscape with mastodons, camels (camels originated in North America 40 million years ago and went extinct 13,000 years ago), and giant beavers (which were as big as black bears).

The puppy was only about 7 weeks old at a time when it had just been weaned from her mother’s milk.  She is thought to have died from a den collapse. This wolf had genetics in common with gray wolves found in Alaska and Eurasia but not the Yukon. It suggests that this ancient species of wolf went extinct in the Yukon and that this Canadian territory was later repopulated with populations from the south.

What do we Know about Zhùr?

Zhùr was a female based on x-rays taken. She was around 6-7 weeks old and just recently weaned. In her short life, she ate mostly fish and aquatic animals. This was based on the geochemical signatures on her teeth. Because her body was in good shape, she did not die of starvation. Researchers think the den she was in possibly collapsed, trapping her in the sandy earth. Genetics show that Zhùr was descended from ancient wolves that originated in Siberia, Russia, and Alaska.

Ice age wolves are only distantly related to modern-day wolves. Climate change and thawing permafrost and melting ice are likely to reveal more preserved specimens as time goes on and we should get a better picture of the evolutionary journey.

Dire Wolf – More like a Mega Fox

Zhùr was not a dire wolf. Dire wolves also looked nothing like “Ghost” from Game of Thrones. According to Popular Science, a Dire Wolf was more like a mega-fox or a giant Shiba Inu than a wolf. Remains of dire wolves have been found with frequency in the La Brea Tar Pits (now Los Angeles) The tar pits are home to many animals that have fallen into an asphalt-filled grave and the DNA samples have been too contaminated and mixed up to do much with.

Relatively intact Dire Wolves found in the tar pits looked physically so similar to a wolf that it was assumed they were a wolf. A paleontological case of if it looks like a duck and acts like a duck, it’s a duck. In this case, that logic failed.

After scouring the continent for non-disrupted specimens, Angela Perri, a researcher at Durham University only had 5 usable samples. What they found was that wolves and Dire Wolves diverged from a common ancestor around 6 million years ago. Dire wolves are so different genetically that they could not interbred with wolves or coyotes. If they could they may have survived whatever it was that challenged their species and led to their extinction 12-13,000 years ago. They were the last of their kind. There are no canids roaming around today that are part dire-wolf.

Artist Rendition of Fox-Like Dire Wolves frighting with Gray Wolves over a carcass. This image appeared in Popular Science.

What does this mean for our Understanding of Wolf Evolution?

There is still a lot that isn’t known about how wolves evolved and came to North America. It seems that different species of wolf evolved separately and then became extinct and the lands they previously inhabited were then repopulated with other wolves that evolved elsewhere. The Ice Age was an extremely long time compared to modern humans who have only been around for 200,000 with civilization as we know it only being around for about 6000 years. As we were on our evolutionary journey from ancient primates, wolves were evolving from ancient Miacids.

Final thoughts

A find like Zhur adds so much detail to the evolutionary picture of wolves. With each find like this, there are many new questions generated. It is truly amazing how with DNA technology and chemical analysis that we can determine with certainty information that would be hidden from us if we were less technologically advanced. As time goes on and science and computer modeling improve we will likely uncover more information we are currently blinded from.

How you can help Wolves.

Wolves are in trouble in most places they are found.

  • On a national level, you could write to The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
  • You could donate to groups like the WWF or Defenders of Wildlife who stand up for animals like the Gray wolf. If you live in Canada, you could consider a gift to Exposed Wildlife Conservancy. In British Columbia you can also check out Pacific Wild.
Consider Donating to Save an Imperiled Animal.

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20 thoughts on “Was the Recently Found Frozen Wolf a Dire Wolf?”

  1. This has been an interesting read. I am excited to learn about Zhur. And I agree that it adds so much detail to the evolutionary picture of wolves. Since Watson and Crick proposed their DNA double helix structure, we have come a long way. And that has opened our eyes to many things.

    Reply
  2. This is a really interesting article on the mummified remains of a young wolf, Zhur, that was found in Canada. I had never considered how wolves evolved, but this suddenly made me wonder so much more as to how wolves, that might have originated in Russia or Siberia, end up in North America. And then where dire wolves fit into it all. 

    And when you look at the physical attributes of Huskies, I can see a very close resemblance to wolves. With so many people thinking wolves are dangerous and must be killed, we have to remember that they play a major role in the eco systems, and  should be protected for future generation. 

    Reply
  3. Interesting post. It serves a vital role in its ecosystem. For instance, deer and elk love to feed along stream banks where vegetation is lush. When wolves are preset deer and elk are afraid to enter dense vegetation where wolves can sneak up on them. When grazing pressure is reduced riparian vegetation can thrive. Stream water is shaded and thus cooler, trout thrive in the cooler water and bank erosion is reduced

    Many people are afraid of wolves and want to see them eradicated. The conflict between those trying to restore wolf populations in the west and those who want to eradicate them is emblematic of so many natural resource conflicts throughout our country.

    Thanks for your educational post. Hopefully, your site will help some people understand the mass extinction currently happening and motivate them to better protect the world around them.

    Reply
  4. Beautiful beautiful article. I always love to learn about animals I was not aware of. Tell me, was this animal only found in Canada or could it be found in another country? I’m getting USA since they are close to each other. My friends and I have similar interests so I will be sure to share this article with them 

    Reply
    • The US, Canada, and Mexico all had wolves historically. I’m not sure about dire wolves range but many preserved specimens have been found near Los Angeles.

      Reply
  5. Thank you for sharing that information about this amazing discovery. I really haven’t heard the story prior to reading the article. That’s amazing that an animal to be preserved in such a good state for 57,000 years. It makes you wonder how many more amazing discoveries could come from this area. The vast amount of an explored areas in  Canada for sure to have many historical treasures.  

    Reply
  6. This is some really fascinating stuff. I mean, this is huge. To find and uncover the oldest mummified wolf. That’s really something. I bet that Neil guy is beyond the moon. A discovery of a lifetime, don’t you think? And we’re lucky for his presence of mind, indeed. 🙂

    I mean, isn’t it just fascinating that ice is capable of preserving an animal largely intact for 57,000 years. That’s just mind-blowing to me. For all we know, there might be other awesome and thrilling discoveries waiting to be found hidden in ice (and God only knows where else). I appreciate you for sharing this. And I appreciate your thoughts of wolf evolution; that was an extremely interesting bit. Cheers. 🙂

    Reply
  7. This is a fascinating post. I have always been intrigued with the animals that existed throughout history and how they may be related to animals that exist today.  DNA puts us one step closer to finding that link and I’m so happy that Neil Loveless had the presence of mind to keep this specimen “on ice” until it could be examined. I look forward to learning more about this find and reading more of your posts about wolves!

    Reply
  8. What a fascinating article.  I have never heard of a Dire Wolf before.  The Zhur that was found to be 6-7 weeks old is really intriguing.  I’m surprised that they determined that it probably ate fish and small mammals.  I would think there would be a weaning time off of its mother.  Perhaps it was trying to eat its traditional foods, but at 7 weeks just could not handle it.  Keep these articles coming. These are fascinating creatures and deserve all the love and attention we can give them.

    Warren

    Reply
  9. This is a very informative article that I really enjoyed reading! I had not heard about Zhur or this rare discovery in the Yukon. The photos are quite something to be seen! This discovery makes one wonder what life must have been like during the Ice Age. Wolves are such beautiful animals and they must have moved around quite a bit thousands of years ago. Thanks so much for sharing this.

    Reply
  10. A very interesting article, which I read with pleasure. Zhur’s discovery led to new information with the help of modern technology. But we still don’t know all about the evolution of wolves and how they came to migrate to different geographical areas. All we know is that we have to protect them because they are part of our ecosystem, which must have a balance. And yes, wolves have a role to play in this ecosystem. Carmen.

    Reply

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